Oxford, city of dreaming cranes

The university town has trouble accepting change: even when it is a free gift, says Godfrey Hodgson
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The Independent Online
Not before Guy Fawkes Day will Congregation, Oxford University's democratic but distinctly unwieldy parliament, get to decide whether the university will accept Wafiq Said's pounds 20m benefaction and build a business studies centre on part of the university's staff sports ground. In the meantime, dons have been reaching for their trusty word-processors and firing off letters to the newspapers, and Oxford has been enjoying its favourite pastime - argument.

The business studies project will now have to run two gauntlets. First, the men in gowns will have their chance with the cudgel; then, if Congregation says yes, it will be the turn of the townies on the city's planning committee - many of them, like the Greens' leader Mike Woodin, dons themselves.

In the long run, the betting is that the project will go through both Congregation and the council, although, presumably, its chances are not exactly helped by the fact that the groundsman at the sports ground in question, who lives on site, is a certain Bill Baker. This Bill Baker is the same man who just happens to be a former Labour leader on the council, a member of the planning committee, this year's sheriff, and next year's lord mayor.

Oxford council properly has rules forbidding a member to take part in debate where he or she has an interest. But the Baker coincidence does illustrate the dense network of competing ideologies and vested interests that make it so hard to get anything done in this country.

Oxford, like Britain as a whole, dislikes change - but has to change rather fast just the same. The question for Oxford - and for Britain - is whether we can change fast enough, or whether we are so divided in our visions of the university, and the society, we want that we succumb to paralysis.

"Six Lane Threat to Heart of City", said the splash headline in last week's Oxford Times. The story underneath revealed that the proposal was to build four new lanes of road for about a hundred yards across a piece of derelict land near the railway station, a mile from the "heart" of the city.

At a recent public meeting to discuss a proposal to build housing along the canal in North Oxford, a woman got up who claimed to represent the Thomas Hardy Society. The new houses, she feared, would hide St Barnabas's church, a Victorian structure whose chief architectural interest is its interior mosaics. The Hardy connection is simply that Jude the Obscure lived near the church. And the only place where a Hardy lover's view of St Barnabas would be obscured by the planned housing would be if they were lying flat on their face in a marshy part of Port Meadow. Almost no argument against doing something is too absurd to be listened to.

And yet, as Galileo said under his breath, it does move - sometimes. There has probably been more building associated with the university than at any time since the heyday of Victorian Gothic a century ago. There are more than a dozen tower cranes at work in the city centre, where Magdalen, Merton, New College and half a dozen other colleges are at work on major extensions.

This activity, it is true, is largely motivated not by vision, but by fear. Colleges are afraid that the college fee, a supplement paid by the government to collegiate universities, will be abolished. Bursars have worked out that if they build high-quality accommodation and rent it to the students in term-time and then to business conferences in the vacations, they will get a higher return than they were getting on their gilt-edged investments.

Most of the time, this new edifice complex provokes no more than subdued grumbling from town and gown alike. But now cometh Wafiq Said, and the grumbling has become fortissimo from both town and gown. The university's wish to build management studies into the structure of the university, instead of isolating them at Templeton outside the ring road, runs up against interests and ideologies of every kind.

Some dons do not approve of Mr Said and his business career. Even if there were grounds for criticism - and the university is confident that there are not - the critics would seem to be on shaky ground. After all, criticism has been levelled at the business life of many recent donors, such as Cecil Rhodes and Antonin Besse, who endowed St Anthony's, not to speak of older benefactors such as Cardinal Wolsey. What is gentility, asked the 17th century antiquary John Selden, save ancient riches?

Another strand of criticism comes from those who disapprove of management studies, either in themselves or as inappropriate to a university whose glory has been in the arts. It is true that there are some who blame Masters of Business Administration for all the follies of modern business culture. But surely the answer is to produce better management graduates - not to stop studying management at all.

For many decades, in any case, Oxford has successfully expanded its reputation for research and teaching into first the hard sciences, then engineering, law, economics and medicine. This has done no obvious damage to its reputation in arts subjects.

A more understandable criticism comes from those in the university - and they are many - who feel that money is desperately needed to improve their salaries and to invest in badly needed improvement in the library system and information technology. Understandable, but hardly logical. To welcome a donation for one purpose makes it more, not less, likely that donors will come forward for other purposes. To rebuff or insult potential donors is to deserve poverty.

As a matter of deliberate policy, the Government has decided to increase the numbers of university students, which is good, while at the same time reducing the real level of resources given to universities to teach them, which is insane. This leaves the universities with little alternative but to find the resources they need wherever they honourably can, and get on with the job they have to do.

What is needed, in fact - in Oxford, as elsewhere in Britain - is an end to the paralysis induced by the deadlock of ideologies and the jungle of vested interests. What is needed, in a word, is a bias in favour of action.

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